Friday, February 21, 2014

Nature or Wilderness - Truly Something Special?

“What wilderness does is present us with a blueprint, as it were, of what creation was about in the beginning, when all the plants and trees and animals were magnetic, fresh from the hands of whatever created them.”
Laurens van der Post
Most folks who experience nature usually go there these days to stress bust and work out. One sees joggers, runners, cyclists and rock climbers when one ventures onto any fore country trail.  Is nature or wilderness special or is it just an ordinary place where we can play out our physical needs for these activities and other adventures such as bagging peaks and running rivers? Is there a specific spiritual dimension to nature that is more powerful than anything we might encounter in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. If so, how can we access this benefit?
The next few blogs will be about nature as a preferred environment for and as a form of  spiritual practice.
There is evidence to show that patients who have had major surgery and have views of trees from their rooms recover faster and need less pain medicine than those with a view of a brick wall. Prison inmates who can see trees from their cells seem to have fewer stress-related problems than those who do not and studies have shown that even the most hardened criminals found work on farms and gardens meaningful. What we can see from our home window is more vital than we might think for our well-being and access to nature from the work place decreases work stress and increases job satisfaction. Those who tend gardens are rewarded with greater life satisfaction. A meditative approach seems relevant  to the fulfillment attained by gardeners. Those who initially begin growing vegetables change to growing flowers presumably for the pure aesthetic pleasure of this “soft” fascination.
Wilderness psychologists who have studied wilderness backpackers,  a non-wilderness vacation group and a third control group have found that the wilderness backpacking group showed better scores on happiness and performance in spite of the "re-entry depression" that occurred in the wilderness backpacking group. Re-entry depression aside, there was nevertheless a proactive restorative effect enabling better coping with stress three weeks later. Even a brief nature walk provides more of a restorative effect than an urban walk or a relaxation exercise.
If there is such a thing as a compassion index, I find, as a physician, that it is restored and maximized on return from an extended trek in nature. After that it gradually dwindles and after three months of intense work the saddest of medical situations does not seem to evoke the empathetic response that it should. There is no question that wilderness has profound benefits on the abilities of this healer to heal. The injunction, "Physician heal thyself!" could not be more accurate than in this predicament. After returning from a trip whole one can be the healer one is supposed to be and give sufficient energy to the task at hand. Research has shown that even a short hike in a natural environment has restorative effects.
There is good evidence that there is more restoration in wilderness and nature settings. There are no studies to show that one must be immersed totally in it but spending one week in a hotel in pristine wilderness is not the same as getting into wilderness as a backpacker, canoeist,  horse trekker, or renting a remote cabin in a wild place. On trails I have led most of the group will volunteer a sense of loss coming off the trail and a desire to be back in pure nature.
In separating ourselves from wilderness with creature comforts we do not experience the full potential of the restoration. We must become a part of the wilderness for it to bestow its benefits which is most evident in the wholeness witnessed among the hunter-gatherers of the world. Our body must become part of the encounter and we must serve as more than just observers. One has to feel, touch, smell and taste as well as see and hear it.  This implies connecting with all the "soft fascinations" nature provides such as sights, scents and the sounds of water or the wind in the trees.

It is likely that the more we approximate the hunter-gatherer model, the more we will discover the spiritual or self-actualizing benefit of the wild and the primal. We discover who we really are when we separate ourselves from material things that are not us. We benefit by ridding ourselves of any"thing" that prevents us from reaching the inner center of our being. If we can hunt and gather in the super market and take only what is essential to our needs into whatever pristine nature place we can find away from technology we can truly connect with our primal humanness again and restore ourselves more completely. The less we have between us and Mother Nature the more profound the effect. If one is carrying ones needs its unlikely anything redundant will be taken along and this is a profound way to immerse oneself in the Garden of Eden archetype which we should remember is feminine.
For those who had trouble accessing the video on Wilderness Rapture or did not see it, it is now up and running on you tube as well as my web site

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wilderness Rapture and the Bushman Healing Trance Dance

 Wilderness Rapture Video can be downloaded from the website

This completes the Bushman section of these recent Blogs.
The next few Blogs will relate to the "How To's" of Wilderness Rapture which we will also cover in detail in the talk at Schott April 12th in Santa Barbara.

This weeks blog is centered around video that I shot of the Kalahari Bushmen at the turn of the millennium. The trance dance segment was taken in the Xai Xai area in north western Botswana at the Gwihaba caves close to the Namibian border. The rest was videoed in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Sadly things have changed for their unique life style in this reserve where previously they could live on their ancestral land and hunt and gather with traditional weapons. This blog will not discuss any of the dynamics of the catastrophic changes to their life style. There is no narration (there is Bushman music and chatter in the background.) and therefore I will give some descriptions of what you will see.

Those interested in the healing trance dance can skip ahead to the last quarter of the u tube video. Here one can see mostly the men dancing around the fire with rattles around their ankles while the women generate the energy for the dance with their incredible chanting and clapping. Several of the men literally fall into trance, one nearly into the fire. In this dream state they travel to the spirit world where they get information with regard to anything ailing the clan or any individual in the clan. They come out of their trance state and channel healing energy with their hands (and their bodies - not seen here.) The last scene is of a younger, probably less mature dancer who is not coming out of trance and is in danger of not coming back from the spirit world. This is why the dance - which is like a near death experience - is sometimes called the little death, and on occasion can result in a real demise. Watch how they try to call his spirit back into his body by dancing, clapping and chanting around him but to no avail. Eventually one of the older women takes a hot coal close to the fire (you can see her wincing from pain as she picks it up.) She thrusts it into his mouth and this brings him around. After the dance there was no evidence that he had been burned.

The rest of the video is about their hunter gatherer lifestyle and the basics of survival; shelter, fire, water and foraging for food (and of course their profound way of attaining balance and harmony in the group through the trance dance. ) 
Extraction water out of the water bulb and planting the bulb remnant for another day.
Making rope out of the sanserveria plant or mother in laws tongue.
Their ingenious traps. 
Toy like bones and arrow. 
The poisonous diamphydia grub with which they poison their arrows. 
Divination with six carved flat sticks; three female, three male. The Bushmen say they were also the first to use the "bones" and that their Bantu neighbors learned it from them. 
Making ankle rattles with the cocoons of a moth which they stuff with pieces of ostrich shell and string together.
Bushman are also seen at play and there is always a lot of joking singing and talking around the compound.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The San Bushmen & Wilderness Rapture.

The San and other hunter-gatherers close to the earth are an ideal model for those of us wishing to formulate our own spiritual nature practice. Few of us will ever know what it feels like 
to be a hunter-gatherer, to be so connected to wilderness that one needs it to survive. A Bushman can walk into the Kalahari and live indefinitely with his antelope skin bag housing a fire kit, a bow and poison arrows, a digging stick for foraging and a sipping straw to suck water out of tree hollows or from sip wells in the sand. The true hunter-gatherer relates to nature beyond the five senses and lives in a psycho-spiritual dimension that we can appreciate but rarely experience. However, we can hunt and gather in the supermarket, fill our backpacks and walk into the wilderness for several days or more, or rent a cabin in some remote wild place. These simple acts can have profound healing consequences and help us connect with a part of ourselves that may have been lost in the eons of time. The essence of this inner journey is to keep it simple and have the minimum of material possessions between ourselves and nature. Anything that separates us from the Earth Mother must be carefully scrutinized, whether it be a horse and its care or a camera. It one ventures forth on foot with a backpack it is unlikely that anything redundant will be carried. 
Many medics are very familiar with wilderness medicine in so far as it could help one or one’s fellow travelers get out of sticky health situations in the bush. However, there is another kind of nature medicine -- healing or restoration resulting from the special qualities of wilderness itself. Few people use wilderness as spiritual practice or for deep inner healing. There is little information to be gleaned from the few books that talk to the subject. The wilderness psychology literature is full of data, but usually the closest one can get to the word "healing" is the term "restorative." The psychology information seems limited since the authors only report what can be objectively measured and most of what happens in wilderness cannot be put  into words. Transcendence and healing in the wild has been labeled the “wilderness effect” but I prefer the more powerful term that speaks to the psycho-spiritual transformation that can occur there i.e. “wilderness rapture.” This may manifest as the Peak Experience described by Maslow. 
Martin Buber said, "All men have access to God, but each man has a different access." Nature is a preferred environment for rapture and healing especially if immersed in for several days or more. 

Yoga philosophy would say this mini-samadhi occurs when the observer (you,) the observed (say a sunset) and the process of you observing the sunset all fuse into one. This has also been called unity consciousness or the oneness experience. For a brief ecstatic period one fuses with or becomes the sunset and enters the "Field." Many of us may have had this experience but also may have trivialized it and not validated it.

“Those of us who have spent time in wilderness are aware of the fact that there is something more to the wilderness than we ourselves can express. Wilderness is an instrument for enabling us to recover our lost capacity for religious experience...”
 We cannot today recreate the original wilderness man in shape form or habitat. But we can recover him because he exists in us. He is the foundation in spirit or psyche on which we build and we are not complete until we have recovered him (or her)…” Laurens van der Post
Jung, Maslow and ancient wisdom have said the search for the true Self or real Self or higher Self is at the core of all human motivation. Whether we know it or not, we are searching for this connection and the drive is always present, even if subconscious. The higher Self, is that God-like part of ourselves, the soul, our Buddha Self or in Yoga texts, the Atman. In order to reach our inner being or higher Self, we must subordinate ego to that Self.
For many, access to the true Self can occur in nature. The most impressive quality of the San is their apparent lack of ego or the small self. It is this more than anything that seems to confer on them a sense of wholeness. They appear to be in much closer contact with their inner being than many of us. It is also this humility that enables them to negotiate the spirit world so expertly through their healing trance dance. Their healers say that one has to open the heart to be a good healer. You must love everyone no matter what you think of them. This is difficult for most of us to do. The San manage to reach these higher states of consciousness not by any esoteric practice but by their intrinsic connection with nature alone and by exposure to the multifaceted properties she possesses.  Nature is a room with many doors and windows to spirit and has all the polarities required for Self realization as many great mystics have understood. It is in wilderness that we can find the middle way described by the Buddha. It is between the opposing dynamics of up/down, hot/cold, terrified/tranquil, thirst/quenched, hungry/satisfied, light /dark, exhausted/rested, wet/dry that we can find equanimity. The San's ability to transcend ego, open their hearts and travel out of body during their trance dance is a testament of the power of these influences.  Nature herself can be a meditation and “leave no trace” or minimum impact camping is a form of mindfulness practice. Solitude may be part of the experience and if one adds to this any number of inner-directed techniques such as meditation, breath work, drumming, ceremony and ritual the power of the wild outdoors can be amplified tremendously. The key thing is to have the right intention. Many go into wild places to work out, stress bust, run rapids, conquer mountains and bag peaks. This militaristic form of lingo and the experience of wilderness rapture may be mutually exclusive. Nature always bats last and it is often the mountaineer who gets bagged and the river that is running the kayaker and not always in the best way.

Wilderness is another way to connect with our inner being and the closer we can get to the model of the hunter-gatherer the more powerful the rapture. Experiencing nature in the right way is not only non denominational but is a tool for transcending ego and reaching for a deeper reality.

At the moment I am organizing to show a video on the Bushman trance dance on U tube since it does not seem to download to this blog. Look for it next week.
PS. Please excuse the changing font size. Some was copied and pasted into the blog from my book Inner Passages Outer Journeys and would not comply when an attempt was made to change it.