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

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