I agree with a point novelist Geraldine Brooks made in one of her 2011 Boyer lectures: “The bodies and minds we inhabit were designed for a very different world to the one we now occupy. As far as we know, no organism has been part of such an experiment in evolutionary biology as we are undertaking – adapted for one life yet living another”. Even though most of humanity now lives in cities and towns we are, as Charles Darwin said, a “wild” species.
What would be the result, I wonder, if we dropped out of the “experiment” for a time and returned to living intimately with nature as our forebears did?
One person who believes he has the answer is David Cumes, a medical specialist by training but now the driving force at Inward Bound, an organisation that provides journeys of healing and self-discovery in wilderness areas.
Cumes describes three outcomes of such journeys:
- discovering our “higher” self
- a transcendent state he calls “wilderness rapture”
- a temporary state of depression following the experience.
The higher self is a state “of inner peace, calm, harmony and oneness” that is reached when we have set aside the concerns about worth, acceptance, prestige and power. The higher self does not have to engage in thoughts and actions to overcome feelings of vulnerability and inferiority. These protective ways of behaving are what some psychologists call the “ego” – the “streetwise” part of our psyche that values power, possessions, popularity and other sources of recognition and status. We have to escape the clamour of the ego if we are to connect with or “gain” the higher self. To do this we have to “lose” the ego-driven self.
This is not easy, but Cumes believes that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of people like the San of South Africa’s Kalahari Desert shows us a way. Cumes has spent long periods living with the San and sharing their lifestyle.
Cumes learned from the San that, “If we spend extended periods of time in nature with the right intention, it is easy to let go of ego and let the higher self emerge”. Westerners can do this, Cumes says, by participating in wilderness activities such as backpacking, canoe touring or trekking for a period that is long enough for the activity to become familiar and routine.
The activity must not be driven by ego–serving objectives and aspirations such as learning a skill or achieving a performance goal of some kind. Its focus should be on being rather than doing and it needs to be modest in its call on equipment and provisions. We should aim at “keeping as little between us and the wilderness as possible”, says Cumes. This does not mean that we have to abandon all comforts and “rough it” in the extreme; in fact, endurance and survival-type experiences should be avoided. On Cumes’ trips, there are times of group sharing and reflection, and techniques such as meditation, quiet times and yoga are encouraged.
“Wilderness rapture” is the consequence of connecting with our higher self. It can be experienced as:
- a heightened sense of self-awareness, self-mastery and self-fulfilment;
- feelings of awe, wonder and transcendence
- a sense of humility
- a sense of oneness with nature
- greater empathy, openness and friendliness towards others
- a deepened appreciation of simplicity and the ability to live in the present moment
- increased energy and a sense of renewal
- enhanced clarity of perception and thought
- an appreciation of time alone
- a connection with, and a sense of comfort in wilderness.
A wilderness experience that has this kind of impact is sometimes difficult to leave behind. The return to ordinary life can trigger a reaction described by Cumes and others as “re-entry depression”, which can range in intensity from feelings of regret through to a sense of emptiness, a sense of having left part of oneself behind in the wilderness. The intensity of the depression is related to the potency of the rapture and to the starkness of the difference is between the world that is being left behind and the one this being re-entered.
But a temporary sense of loss and sadness is a small price to pay for the mental and spiritual capital that is built up during extended wilderness activities. This is evident from the way such experiences are often recalled – as “life-changing”, for example or the “best thing I have done in my life”.