NOTE: I will be facilitating a 3-day retreat with the theme of “Your Inner/Outer Wild: Nature and Spirituality” June 27-29, 2013 in Ouray, Colorado. Visit http://ourayretreat.eventbrite.com for more information
Have you ever been hiking, backpacking or paddling down a river, enjoying your surroundings, and a feeling of utter peace and expansiveness came over you? Suddenly, all your worries felt far away, almost trivial. You felt a deep relaxation come over you, a desire to remain in that place—that meadow, that forest, that river canyon—and take in all its beauty and majesty and not have to go back to your real life with all its stress and responsibilities.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something even deeper and more profound while in wilderness. Perhaps you quietly sat gazing out at a bank of low clouds wrapping themselves intimately around a mountain peak and something shifted in your soul—as if you had been lifted out of yourself to the mysterious nether reaches of the cold granite escarpment beyond that which you could see. Or alone on a raft, you sank into the silence and grace of a black river as it cut curves through ancient sandstone canyons, your mind slowing, your senses clarifying.
Wherever you were, in whatever special place that called to you, something happened to you. It’s as if you were at the cusp of learning the answer to a great mystery, a revelation that you could have without feeling as if you were simultaneously losing yourself, without becoming permanently lost in the dark wilderness of it all.
The feeling may have been fleeting. It may have lasted a few hours. It may have even jolted your perception of the world and your place in it. However long it lasted, it affected you. You suspect that for that brief moment in time, you had touched the Divine. Whether you call it God, Spirit, Universe, or simply Nature, you knew that you wanted to experience more of it.
In that moment and maybe for a short time after, your life came into complete and harsh focus. Your worries, your to-do lists, your ambitions—matters that once consumed your thoughts constantly—felt trivial. The weight of your responsibilities were dissolved with an exhale, as you inhaled the timelessness and serenity around you.
If you’ve ever felt anything like this while spending time in nature, you’ve had what’s called a “peak” or a “transpersonal” experience. The pleasurable feelings and impressions these experiences leave make some to want to journey to remote places, to spend long hours, weeks or even years on mountain treks, or to slog up rough terrain on less-traveled paths in order to get the kind of solitude and quiet that moments like this require. Some wilderness enthusiasts don’t just venture out in order to challenge themselves or see new landscapes, but they venture on a quest for the sacred.
In fact, for some, time spent in wilderness settings is not only a way to get away from the stresses of daily life, it can also be a spiritual journey, a search for communion with the “oneness of all being”. What’s beautiful about this experience is that the more you seek it, the easier it is to find that particular kind of peace and self-transcendence. Once you stumble upon that altered state of consciousness, it’s easier to find that space again next time, and the next. Time spent outside in nature becomes more than a hobby or pastime, it becomes a form of spiritual practice. This practice can be as spiritually fulfilling as praying or attending church on Sundays. It can connect you to your Higher Self and to the Divine, and allows you to feel a sense of wholeness that’s rarely attainable in the midst of a busy, multi-faceted modern life.
Transcending the Self
In conventional psychology, little attention is paid to the reasons people seek out spiritual practice or the benefits of having a regular spiritual practice, whether it’s religious or not. In conventional psychology, the emphasis is on healthy and unhealthy expressions of relating to both oneself and others. The study of how a mentally healthy person relates to their “higher self”, or to aspects beyond the ego that include nature and divinity, is transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology includes and incorporates all disciplines of conventional psychology, but goes beyond to answer the question: Why do human beings long for a form of self-transcendence, and how can self-transcendence take place?
Self-transcendence refers to a state of consciousness that is beyond the normal boundaries of the self. It’s more than what we consider to be our living, breathing body; more than just the job we do or the roles we take on in the world; more than just how we’re feeling or thinking in the moment. Self-transcendence is a connection to those aspects that go beyond the individual self to the concept of oneness or connectedness to the world or universe beyond. It has nothing to do with time, body or place. It has to do with plugging into the mystery of existence and the life force of the universe. It is a sense of harmony with other humans, the world, and all its inhabitants. Immersion in natural environments is one way of achieving a state of self-transcendence.
The psychological effect of time spent in wilderness has been the subject of study by researchers in the past. In one such study, Kaplan and Talbot (1983) and Talbot and Kaplan (1986) write about the psychological effects their Outdoor Challenge Program had on both children and adults who went on these week-long wilderness trips. The participants kept personal journals, which they agreed to have examined at the end of the trip by the researchers. Kaplan and Talbot found the strongest themes that emerged in the journals were feelings that can be described as “transpersonal” or transcending the self.
“For many participants [during the backpacking trips] there is eventually a surprising sense of revelation, as both the environment and the self are newly perceived and seem newly wondrous. The wilderness inspires feelings of awe and wonder, and one’s intimate contact with this environment leads to thoughts about spiritual meanings and eternal processes. Individuals feel better acquainted with their own thoughts and feelings, and they feel “different” in some way—calmer, at peace with themselves, “more beautiful on the inside and unstifled.” (Kaplan and Talbot, 1983, p. 178)
Extended wilderness immersion in the form of long backpacking trips, vision quests or meditation retreats in remote settings can bring about powerful emotional transformation. Eco-therapists and ecopsychologists who take clients out for these types of excursions sometimes report that afterwards their clients decide to leave their unhappy jobs, marriages, relationships or uproot their lives in some way. The reason can be a combination of factors. Hidden and deep pain becomes are exposed, the mind slows to allow more creative and clear thinking, and there is some experience with self-transcendence—sometimes for the first time. This can make quite an impression on an individual, so much so that the fears and blocks they have about their life are eliminated in favor of the strong desire to have more of the “flow” they manifested during the excursion. Simply put, if they’re able to imagine a better, happier life while being connected to the Divine, they’ll find it easier to make the necessary changes to achieve that life.
How to Have a Spiritual Experience in Nature
You can experience self-transcendence simply by being quiet, contemplative and mindful while doing what you most enjoy out of doors in a natural setting. You can be on a walk in your suburban neighborhood and look up to see the tops of the trees swaying in the wind and feel a sense of openness and freedom. But maybe you want to experience more than just a flash of good feelings. Maybe you want to really touch the face of God, so to speak, and transcend time and space and feel the ripple of life and love running through you. If that’s the case, you’ll want to go to a place that would most evoke a transpersonal state of mine for you. It would have to be a place that is special to you and your soul. It may not necessarily be a place you’ve been, or even know. Or it can be a place you like to hike or canoe or walk. Ask yourself what landscapes speak to you most. Are they beaches, mountains, prairies, or meadows? What kinds of nature photography are you most drawn to? What scenes do they depict? What seasons?
I’ve always loved photos of tall, craggy mountains and lush wildflower-filled meadows. I especially like photos of misty or foggy weather in the same kind of landscape, which give me a feeling of mystery and foreboding. Depictions of sunsets and sunrises, a photographer’s secret formula for taking amazing photos, are also fascinating to me. When I imagine having a transpersonal moment in nature, I imagine sitting in the valley of a tall mountain at sunrise, with cold mist rising up its face from a drizzly night, and gold and orange hues reflected off snow fields high up close to the peak. I imagine feeling utterly alone, but not in a lonely way. I would be alone in a spiritual way. It would be an aloneness that would cure all loneliness because I felt so connected to the rocks and animals and plants in that mountain valley. I was a part of everything and completely accepted. I would feel as if I were the only one witnessing the sun rising that morning, the first one awake in the world besides the birds who were just starting to chirp in the sunlight.
Likewise, think about the kind of place near where you live where you would most like to be, where you would feel relaxed and happy and safe. Take some time away from your busy life to go there. It doesn’t have to be far. It can be on established trails near town, close enough to feel safe but remote enough to feel wild. Don’t worry about the weather. Sometimes transpersonal moments come easiest when the weather is unsettled and you have more solitude. Just be diligent, and be careful about being equipped and appropriately dressed. I’ve had the easiest time with self-transcendent moments when it’s been raining, snowing or when a blizzard was rolling in. If you live along the Front Range in Colorado, try getting up before sunrise and seeing the sun rise over the horizon from a comfortable spot on the side of a hill (Sugarloaf Mountain, Horseshoe Mountain). Try going for a before-dinner hike on a trail close to the city, such as the Flatirons Vista Trail, White Ranch Open Space or Marshall Mesa, so that you’re enveloped in dusky light and racing the darkness. It can feel thrilling. Allow the beauty and peace of the landscape to wash over you, pull you in, fill you up. Make connecting to the land where you live a regular spiritual practice that’s good for the soul and good for the planet.