Over the course of a day’s hike or in a sudden wonderstruck moment, many of us have felt the edges of our selves dissolve into the wild that surrounds us. We become unconsciously “of” our environments. Shedding the insular, constraining cages of our everyday hyperrationality—the mental chatter, the rigid expectations, and inevitable tension and failures that accompany them—identities and desires evaporate into the senses. For a time, we become raw awareness. The heightening of the senses alone can feel like a kind of animalistic thrill.
For our ancestors, the natural world was mystically animated in ways we moderns have a hard time grasping. Today we’re guided more by scientific interpretations of nature and the prevailing metaphysical and monotheistic religions that seat spiritual figures in the otherworldly.
For our hunter-gatherer and early “ancient” ancestors, however, the natural world was the seat and center of spiritual force. The earth was their cosmological stage for the game of life, whose essential figures encompassed many species and whose plot lines were always in the present, spontaneous making. Everything from animal encounters to a season’s weather were part of a mystical dance between people and the forces of creation. Spiritual life was life itself, and vice versa. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, “Everything is full of gods.”
Of course, this enchantment came hand in hand with superstition and all of its limitations. Although today we have generations’ worth of scientific insight, we nonetheless still crave that sense of connection and, as Jung and others have called it, “original knowing.” We’re naturally inclined to seek “spiritual” or (in less metaphysical terms) transcendent experience in the wild. These encounters fill some essential hunger in our deeper psychic layers.
In this sense, spiritual experiences in nature aren’t so much about witnessing something of the natural world itself but rediscovering something in ourselves—perhaps the “wilderness within,” as author Paul Shepard calls it. Our encounters are rare moments of deep spiritual consonance, a comforting, vital harmony within our most fundamental natures. Humans, after all, have both the gift and the hardship of living between two worlds—that of the wild that nurtured them and that of the cultures they create. More and more, the two realms grow further apart in our modern age. These spiritual experiences in wilderness perhaps embody a homecoming of sorts and offer balm for the deep homesickness that accompanies our social and cultural progress.
For more, read the past post, “Spiritual Encounters in Nature.”