Wilderness is inherently healing. We go there feeling wounded and separate; we walk over hills and beside water and find connection and restoration. We go there having forgotten who we are and our purpose in life, seeking insistently for meaning; we rest in the silence of a wild place, and the meaning we had sought finds us. We go to the wilderness for the connection we feel with the environment that heals. Poet Robinson Jeffers writes that the human mind must “turn its love from itself and/man, from parts to the whole.” (Oelschlaeger, 1991, p. 252). Nature is the whole; humanity is a part of that whole. We are a part that remains partial and incomplete until we open our hearts to the whole. We must give our love to what is whole in order to begin on the road to wholeness.
The actual walking in wilderness therapy, then, proves to be symbolic. The client walks not only to the next point on the map but also to the next point on the road to the whole. “People have always turned to the wilderness to become whole again” (Roszak et al., 1995, p. 184). But what does it mean to become whole? And how specifically does wilderness therapy contribute to the wholeness of its clients?
Perhaps it would be simpler to begin by describing what a lack of wholeness looks like. For many of the clients in wilderness therapy, a lack of wholeness looks like an addiction to some substance or a behavioral compulsion that imitates, in the short term, the wholeness that they seek. According to Christina Grof, “The fervent thirst for wholeness…is the underlying impulse behind addictions” (Grof, 1994, p. 18).
What clients feel when they arrive at wilderness therapy is separateness, an intense and painful feeling of isolation from other people and from themselves. Those in recovery circles refer to it as a spiritual malady, the sense of being an isolated human being, unrelated to others and out of contact with one’s own depths. In the book Group Psychotherapy and Recovery from Addiction, the author writes, “Addiction is both a solution to and a consequence of an impaired ability to establish and maintain relationships” (Roth 2004, ix) and “Behind every addict and alcoholic is a suffering individual who is striving to break out of isolation and connect to someone and something larger than the self” (x).
How does wilderness therapy counteract the clients’ isolation? How does it support them in ‘breaking out’ and connecting with others? For one, wilderness therapy is a form of group therapy. With the exception of a one-day solo experience and a three-day Vision Quest, which clients in Legacy undergo and from which come invaluable insights about the nature of the self and world as well as precious time for connective introspection, Legacy clients remain with a single team for the duration of their time in the wilderness. Each client hikes with the same team, cooks on a fire and eats with that team, and talks and connects with the rest of that team. When connection occurs between previously isolated individuals, the isolation of each individual no longer exists.
The role of staff members in a wilderness therapy program, according to the authors of The Promise of Wilderness Therapy, “is to provide a warm, accepting environment, with group support” (Davis-Berman and Berman, 2008, p. 53). In order for the feeling of isolation to be overcome, each client must first be accepted with love. This acceptance is key. The environment must allow for each client to reveal himself as he truly is to the rest of the group. And, according to Passmore and Howell, the wilderness itself provides the environment for honest and authentic self-disclosure: “Exposure to nature can bolster an individual’s sense of freedom to be who they truly are and to act without pretense” (2014, p. 379).
Wilderness allows for individuals to be authentically themselves without much or any interference by staff members. According to Davis-Berman and Berman, “the outdoors is therapeutic in and of itself…talking about or reflecting on outdoor experiences is unnecessary” (2008, p. 59). The outdoors is therapeutic in that it allows for more natural bonds between people to arise. Bonds between people are made easier because of the bond each person feels to the wilderness itself. Something about the openness and freedom of the landscape leads to openness between those who inhabit it, who walk together on the land under the sky. There is space enough for closeness. Each member of the team has his own individual space, yet each member is part of the group and no longer isolated. Realizing one’s lack of isolation means realizing that one is already whole, and this is one of the most important insights any client in wilderness therapy can have.
Life in the wilderness, compared to life in a city or town, is simple. What is important is what ought to be important: time and space; stillness and silence, solitude and community; wind, earth, water, fire; sleeping, eating, walking, listening. There is nothing extra or superfluous. It is possible to have an insight into oneself and one’s life that brings actual transformation. The stillness in the wilderness is ideal for insight; the noise and commotion of the town usually block any insight from occurring in the first place, and when insights do come in the town, noise and distractions tend to dissipate them before they lead to legitimate change. How can an individual have an insight into the nature of the heart when he cannot even hear what his heart longs for? The heart longs for silence, for one, and the wilderness satisfies this longing. Only from this silence can the true heart speak. Only from listening intently to the true heart can an individual have insights that bring actual change.
The client in wilderness therapy walks in time with the arc of the sun; he sets up his shelter and sleeps at night. He wakes up just as the sun begins to rise, out of doors and out of his usual train of thought. He wakes to a morning different from every other morning that has come before it, so why should he, and how could he, stay the same, as if he is not subject to the same law that keeps the days changing? His thoughts begin to grow more serene, still and patient like the rocks he no longer stumbles over. He learns to deal with life as it comes, with the heat and light of day and the cold and dark of night. He no longer feels pulled onto a descending road that is not his; instead, he feels a longing growing within him to find his own road. At all times, he finds himself in contact with some element. He sleeps and walks on the earth; he cooks on the fire; he breathes fresh, unpolluted air and feels the wind on his skin; he washes his face in a pure stream at dawn.
Lack of contact brings suffering; contact heals and makes whole. The client realizes that his road to recovery must incorporate this healing contact, with nature and with other people. Only through tangible connection is self-awareness possible, for there is no self if there is no connection without something beyond the self. Wilderness therapy provides the opportunity for this all-important connection, without which there can be no recovery.
In wilderness, recovery is not the final goal. What good is recovering what you have lost if you don’t uncover anything new? The wilderness allows for uncovering in addition to recovering. You begin by recovering the aspects of yourself that were lost to the addiction, compulsion, mental disorder. You recover the fact that you are capable. You can hike many miles in a day, make a fire with sticks, build a shelter with a tarp. You can survive; you are worthy of your existence. You uncover the fact that you are more than capable, more than worthy. You discover a power that has nothing to do with superiority over other people; you discover a tenderness that comes into you from nowhere and out of you towards no definite object; you discover the stillness at the heart of things, and in your own heart. You wake up the morning after the storm, and all the trees are still standing. You look at them and feel their strength, their robust aliveness.
So why does wilderness therapy work when other therapies don’t work? The word is wilderness. No person is healing another person. No one is the healer, no one the healed. Out in the wilderness, away from everything that makes it necessary to need healing, simply to be there is to be healed.
Davis-Berman, J. L., Berman, D. S., & Association for Experiential Education. (2008). The promise of wilderness therapy. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.
Gilmore, T.B. (1987). Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth Century Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Grof, C. (1993). The thirst for wholeness: Attachment, addiction, and the spiritual path. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco.
Oelschlaeger, M. (1991). The idea of wilderness: From prehistory to the age of ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Passmore, H., & Howell, A. J. (2014). Eco-Existential Positive Psychology: Experiences in Nature, Existential Anxieties, and Well-Being. Humanistic Psychologist, 42(4), 370-388.
Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Roth, J. D. (2004). Group psychotherapy and recovery from addiction: Carrying the message. New York: Haworth Press.