Wilderness and Nature as Therapeutic:
The word therapy comes from the Greek word for healing. The verb ‘to heal’ comes from the Old English for ‘whole’ and means ‘to make whole.’ To heal the human individual, then, is to guide him or her to wholeness. In the beginning stages of recovery many alcoholics and addicts hear the question: “How can you fix a broken mind with that broken mind?” A variant of the same question should be posed to those in therapeutic and rehabilitation professions who are invested in making whole the divided hearts and minds of suffering individuals. How can you fix a broken mind in the places where the mind was broken in the first place?
The mind in turmoil does not need to sit on a couch and discuss its turmoil. The frustrated, clamped-down, numbed heart does not need to unravel with words the many threads that have tightened around it, closing it off not only from life outside but from the very wellsprings of its own inner life. What the divided self needs is the freedom to grow toward wholeness. Rather than closing the door on the world and analyzing the suffering psyche in the seclusion of a small room, better to open the door, lace up the hiking boots, and take to the wilderness. When Moses led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, he took them through the wilderness. When Jesus departed from the crowds, “he withdrew himself to the wilderness, and prayed.” (Luke 5:16)
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous stresses that the alcoholic is caught in the ‘bondage of self,’ a prison just as terrible, and in many cases more terrible, than the barred prison of a jail cell. For the alcoholic, this bondage is exaggerated, but all persons driven by the compulsive and insatiable demands of the ego have placed themselves under this bondage to a greater or lesser degree.
A self in bondage needs to go some place where the sorrows of the sad small self will not be all-consuming, where the metaphorical shackles of the ego can be sloughed off like an old snake skin, a place where a wanderer is liable to meet a rattlesnake in the middle of the sandy wash and feel the primordial fear of encountering something wild and strange whose life never rises above the ground of the earth, an encounter that disturbs the stagnant complacency which has taken root in the caged spirit like a poisoned seed, opens up space in a crowded and desiccated being for something fresh and vital to rouse the sleeping giant of the soul.
A self in bondage needs to beat a retreat from beating the wind and beating around the burning bush and go to where the sun can shine onto pale skin and the wind can breathe through over-conditioned hair, where the ear can hear the turtledove mourn. A self in bondage needs to take off outer garments and walk awhile in the stillness, amidst the dove’s plaintive song, upon holy ground. A self in bondage needs to go to the wilderness.
Healing is a homeward journey. To return home is to re-enter and fall deeper into the heart that longs to be free. When the heart is free to experience not only the vast range and depth of its own feeling, but also the wordless connection with all of life that experiencing its freedom naturally brings about, healing can begin. The individual returns to the woods, the original home, so the mind can clear of irrelevant things, and the heart can return to its true home.
If we go to the woods to return home, and to know by tangible contact our deep-rooted connection with all things, why should we ever want to be out of the woods? The work there is never done, for the work is to rest in peace, to live in such a way that, when we arrive at the end of our lives, we are at peace with our final rest.
One definition of nature is: The original, natural, uncivilized condition of humankind. By walking in nature in search of healing, we are going not only to be awed by the powerful, undammed rivers, the towering mountains, the patient trees and the wild animals, we are also going to grow closer to the original condition of humankind, not a journey backwards but a forward march through the desert.
We become aware that our sanity is being restored naturally, without the mental strain of excess analysis, without any unnecessary efforts on our part. We let our thirst for wholeness lead us deeper into wild territories, to experience nature’s wholeness, and deeper as well into the wild and unexplored territories of our hearts, to experience our longing for the wholeness of our true nature. All we do is make our way from the known to the unknown, from the indoors to the outdoors, from the city to the wilderness. We find our way to the wilderness and abide there with our longing, let it grow and deepen. And we let Nature do the rest.